Hofesh Shechter: From England with Love – Southbank Centre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Choreographer: Hofesh Shechter

An elegy to England, Hofesh Shechter’s new dance begins with the stirring Edward Elgar piece Nimrod from Enigma Variations. Eight dancers, dressed in school uniforms stand straight, rucksacks on their backs, delicately moving their hands to Elgar’s sweeping orchestration. Around them is utter darkness; they are ghosts of the past and harbingers of the future. A flicker of a royal wave is the only sign of irony in the face of such a rousing hymn to nationhood.

It’s a truly stunning way to start an examination of England’s dark and complex past. Other pieces of music by Purcell and Tallis conjure up evensong in Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel, aided by Tom Visser’s lights streaming on the stage as if sunset through lead glass windows. Oxford’s dreaming spires are never far away in an England we see repeatedly in TV and films from Brideshead to Saltburn. It’s an England that has probably never existed but we yearn for it nevertheless.

However, these nostalgic vignettes only take up some of Shechter’s 60-minute show. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for the visionary choreographer and his emerging artist company, Shechter II. The dancers roughhouse to a pulsating score, skipping along in ecstatic joy as if they were taking part in a Bakhtinian carnival. Later the horseplay becomes more serious as they stab or shoot each other, echoing Clowns an earlier dance by Shechter which is full of such comic executions.

In a colour scheme of grey, white and blue with splashes of gold, the dancers drag each other to the back of the stage, before they jump up again to rejoin the party. They huddle together in close-knit shoals or, as the lights go out, regroup in a different part of the stage completely. Is England’s history truly such a riot of murder and puffed-up celebration?

Not since Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last Of England have we seen the complexities of patriotism so creatively interrogated. The sound of teacups smashing while one dancer mimes holding a shaking saucer before the company act out a gun salute suggests that England’s bourgeois ways are long in the past. Of course, our history is more violent than drinking tea.

The dancers are hardly still to the extent that From England with Love almost becomes an endurance performance where they become sacrificial symbols. They suffer so we don’t have to. It’s like Marina Abramović’s response to 9/11, The House with the Ocean View, where she lived on a raised platform in a New York gallery for 12 days without eating. Somehow she managed to purge the terror from the city. Likewise, Shechter’s dancers manage to cleanse England’s history while simultaneously holding it up for us to view.

But the way the dancers linger on stage as the music ends implies that it’s a history that still has a long way to go.

Runs until 20 April 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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